Sartre: Conversations with a ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’

John Gerassi, Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, edited and translated by John Gerassi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 336 pages, $20.00, paperback.

“I want to know, Sartre, how a bourgeois like you—and you, Sartre, no matter how much you hate the bourgeoisie are still a bourgeois through and through—became a revolutionary.” In this way, John Gerassi once informed an audience of Jean-Paul Sartre scholars and aficionados about what to expect from the 2,000-plus pages of edited transcripts of his conversations with Sartre, taped from 1970 to 1974 and recently deposited in the Yale University library. Although this remark is not included, Talking with Sartre distills those interviews into similar challenges from Gerassi, followed by Sartre’s direct, spontaneous responses. No major political and literary figure was interviewed as often as was Sartre. And nothing else, including Simone de Beauvoir’s 1974 interviews with Sartre, comes close to matching the vitality and intensity here.

It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Gerassi recording encounters like these with Sartre. They range over the whole of Sartre’s life and work—literary, philosophical, political, and personal. Beneath their candor and intensity lie decades of familial loyalties (Gerassi’s father, Fernando, was a renowned painter in France and a Spanish Civil War Republican general much admired by Sartre), and there were political associations as well. In the mid-1960s, Gerassi persuaded Sartre to join the International War Crimes Tribunal, hosted by Bertrand Russell’s Peace Foundation to investigate U.S.-sponsored atrocities in the Vietnam War. And in 1968, Gerassi, inspired by the earlier takeover of the University of Paris—a harbinger of revolution for both Sartre and Gerassi—led the student takeover of San Francisco State University.

Gerassi is now a professor of political science at the City University of New York (in Queens) and is the author of twelve books, including Sartre’s biography, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. His knowledge of French radicalism at the time he conducted these interviews with Sartre was probably unequalled by any American, and his in-person study of radical movements worldwide (The Coming of the New International: An Anthology, 1971) added to his unquestioned credibility with Sartre. Gerassi is personally intrigued by Sartre’s persistence in identifying himself as a writer even after 1968, when he also began to identify as a revolutionary, for whom everything is political.

To chart Sartre’s political development, Gerassi takes him through his relative political indifference to the Nazis in 1933, while Sartre was studying in Berlin, and comparable disinterest in the 1936 Popular Front movement in France, arguably the most important progressive movement in twentieth century France before 1968. Sartre only entered the political battlefield for the first time after the Second World War. These war years nonetheless contributed to his political evolution in ways not often noted. For instance, Sartre describes the transformation of his “bourgeois individualism” at seeing himself and his fellow war prisoners “working together for each other’s well-being…under the heel of their German captors.”


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